Deeper Logic

118
Atom orbitals, Michael Diederich, commons.wikimedia.org

It’s easy to get a bit sluggish over the Christmas period. To wake you up and start the New properly, here is the story of a scientist who has really thought about how his science and faith interact. In this interview extract, Oxford theoretical physicist Ard Louis shares two instances where his physics helped his faith to mature. What fascinated me most was that in this highly specialised – almost abstract – field of science, Louis can find a metaphor that helps him to understand and explain his faith.

When I was in my last year of high school I began to teach myself quantum mechanics (a mathematical theory that describes the physics of very small things). Quantum mechanics is an incredibly accurate and powerful theory. One of the really interesting things about it is that the concepts you can describe mathematically don’t always have parallels in our day-to-day life. A famous example is the electron, the particle that flows in an electrical current.  An electron sometimes acts like a wave, and sometimes acts like a particle. So is it a wave, or is it a particle, or is it both? This sounds bizarre, but it isn’t at all once you understand quantum mechanics. I discovered that waves and particles are simply shorthand ways scientists have developed of thinking about electrons. We need the shorthand because we don’t have concepts in daily life that exactly match what is happening at the quantum level.  Once you understand the mathematics you can see that, at a deeper level, they are related in a very elegant and profound way.

My fledgling understanding of quantum mechanics helped me with some theological puzzles that I had found confusing. For example, how can we have free will if an all-powerful God has control of every detail of our lives? When I read the Bible sometimes it seemed that God was in control, and sometimes it seemed that people were in control.  It was helpful to discover that, in the physical world, things that appeared contradictory on the surface (say an electron behaving like a wave and a particle) could be understood by a deeper and much more elegant theory like quantum mechanics. This led me to suspect that when I encountered what seemed to be profound logical or theological mysteries, a radically different way of interpreting the problem could make the whole thing come together in a very powerful way. Just as C.S. Lewis wrote about a ‘deeper magic’ in his Narnia series, there could perhaps also be a ‘deeper logic.’

As a scientist and as a Christian, I find the world to be incredibly beautifully put together. I see that beauty when I go skiing in the Alps, and I also see that beauty in the mathematics behind the universe. In my fourth year at university I studied the work of Paul Dirac, a physicist who tried to combine quantum mechanics and Einstein’s ‘special relativity’ (the theory of things that move very fast). If you do this for an electron, as Dirac did, you find that no matter how you try, the mathematics forces you to include a new and very strange component in the equation. We now call this component ‘antimatter.’ When matter and antimatter come into contact, the matter gets annihilated into pure energy (think of Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation). In 1932, a few years after Dirac made this mathematical prediction, the first antimatter was discovered in a lab.  I was completely amazed to learn that mathematics could require something so spectacular from the natural world. It sounded impossible. How could mathematics make such demands? I stayed up all night trying to find some alternative way of solving this problem, but was finally forced to give up. It’s hard to explain to somebody who isn’t trained in mathematical physics just how incredible this is!

The confirmation of Dirac’s theory through the discovery of antimatter is an example of what the Nobel Prize-winner Eugene Wigner called the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.’ He said that it is  ‘a gift we neither understand nor deserve.’ This ‘gift’ is regularly reconfirmed to me through my work. In the mathematical structure of the universe I see something that looks beautifully crafted. To me, this seems to point towards a Creator or Sustainer behind the laws of the universe.

Extract from Ruth Bancewicz, Test of FAITH: Spiritual Journeys with Scientists (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2010), 71-72, 74. Previously published in the ACW magazine, and reproduced here by permission of ACW and Paternoster.

6 thoughts on “Deeper Logic

  1. Dave Langton. January 3, 2013 / 10:56 am

    I’m way beyond my knowledge base as a non -scientist, though can still grasp something of the wonder of God’s creation. And also, Ruth, every blessing for a fruitful 2013 in your service of the Lord.
    With our love, Val and Dave Langton.

    Like

    • Ruth Bancewicz January 7, 2013 / 2:45 pm

      Thank you Dave, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Happy New Year!

      Like

  2. chrisnamastephys11 January 3, 2013 / 7:37 pm

    Thank you for posting this, Ruth Bancewicz! I really appreciated this article, in particular! I found interesting what physicist Ard Louis had to say in making an analogy between what I consider to be dichotomoies: free-will/predestination and the particle/wave duality of an electron. I haven’t thought of that analogy before, but will ponder it more now. It is interesting that I had been just thinking about the particle/wave duality of nature in greater detail just last night, and lo and behold an article that brings this up in a religion/science context! Wow! Thank you!

    Like

  3. Richard Hosking January 15, 2013 / 12:39 pm

    Hi Ruth, Great stuff from Ard!

    Quantum mechanics forms the back-drop to Michael Frayn’s award-winning play ‘Copenhagen’, which adapts Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to dramatize the meeting that took place between the German physicist and his Danish-Jewish mentor Niels Bohr, in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1941. Much speculation surrounds the former colleagues’ discussion, as Heisenberg was then running the German atomic research program and Bohr later contributed to the Manhattan Project following his escape to Sweden in 1943.

    As well as explaining the physics and historical context, the superb play explores many areas where science and religion overlap, including the limits of human knowledge; the moral implications of scientific research; the psychological complexity of human relationships; the fragility of memory and mortality; and how the personal, deeply human acts of observation and measurement substantiate our place in the universe.*

    Daniel Craig gives a great performance as Heisenberg in the 2002 BBC production.

    *Michael Frayn ‘Copenhagen’ (Methuen Drama 2009) p. 71-72
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rescue_of_the_Danish_Jews
    http://www.pbs.org/hollywoodpresents/copenhagen/about/index.html
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Copenhagen-DVD-Region-Import-NTSC/dp/B00008RGZG

    Like

  4. Richard Barker June 20, 2013 / 5:08 pm

    Hello Ruth – Can’t recall how I came across this but recognised it’s worth yet didn’t read until I’d blogged a piece on Phil Masons’ book ‘Quantum Glory’. Your thoughts here are full of insight.
    Also today I read one of your latest, which connected into what I’d just written!! So have linked you site into mine and started following. My reference to both ‘events’ is at foot of http://wp.me/p1Y1yB-3Ee

    Like

Please leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s